Families in Flux

As household arrangements take new directions, scientists attempt to sort out the social effects

It’s enough to send chills down Ozzie’s and Harriet’s happily married, two-kids-and-a-backyard, 1950s-sitcom spines.

Social scientists examine the effects of new household arrangements, from single moms to cohabiting couples and gay parents clockwise from top left: frame: © kuznetcov_konstantin/shutterstock; photo: theboone/istockphoto; frame: © mike.irwin/shutterstock; photo: Gary John Norman/getty images; frame: © kuznetcov_konstantin/shutterstock; photo: Photo_Alto/istockphoto; frame: ElementalImaging/istockphoto; photo: Imagesbybarbara/istockphoto
MAKING IT LAST A two-year study surveying thousands of people living in the United States found that couples in formal unions have lower annual breakup rates than couples who do not declare a commitment. This trend held for heterosexual and same-sex couples. Source: M. Rosenfeld and T. Thomas/How Couples Meet and Stay Together 2011
HALF-CENTURY SHIFTS | Though scientists are still struggling to understand the effects of changes in the American family, some recent trends are clear: Fewer people are getting married, and those who do are tying the knot later in life. Declining marriage rates are more pronounced among those with little education. More unmarried women are having children, and more mothers are working outside the home. Source: Pew Research Center
SAME-SEX STATS | More than 600,000 couples identified themselves as same-sex in the 2010 U.S. census, more than five per 1,000 households. About 17 percent of these couples were raising children belonging to one of the spouses (by birth, marriage or adoption). Gary Gates and Abigail Cooke/The Williams Institute/UCLA

Census and survey data for 2010 show that only half of U.S. adults age 18 or older are married, a proportion that has steadily declined from 72 percent in 1960. Marriage rates have plummeted most dramatically among 18- to 24-year-olds and among adults without college degrees, mostly from lower- and middle-class households. With marriage in retreat, other living arrangements — unmarried adults cohabiting with or without children, single people living alone, single parents raising children, to name a few — are on the rise.

At the same time, couples that do commit for the long haul come to their unions with new motives and expectations, and a determination to generate their own definitions of what constitutes wedded bliss. Most notable, marriage is now becoming an option for some gay partners, with same-sex marriage currently legal in nine states and the District of Columbia.

“Traditional heterosexual marriage has already been destroyed,” says social historian Stephanie Coontz of the Evergreen State College in Olympia, Wash. “People now decide for themselves who and when and whether to marry, and whether to have children and how to divide household tasks.”

In today’s charged atmosphere, social science is under intense pressure to determine how well different types of new families work. Politicians, scholars and special interest groups impatiently await studies that can be exploited or criticized, depending on the findings. The social scientists, a generally liberal crowd, want to get an empirical grip on the effects of new arrangements, to inform issues ranging from the legalization of same-sex marriage to the allocation of funds for preschool interventions. While investigators aren’t yet declaring winners in this divisive debate, new research is providing provocative, albeit preliminary, takes on the strengths and weaknesses of various family types.

Consider these findings: Living with an unmarried partner may provide all the physical and emotional health benefits of being married. Public commitment vows help relationships last longer, whether partners are married or living together, straight or gay. Behavioral problems are escalating in children of both sexes, a trend that has been linked to an increase in single motherhood. Most controversial, some research shows that young adults who have opposite-sex parents display better emotional health than peers with gay mothers.

The results cover a lot of social territory, and investigators caution that it will take decades to fully untangle the consequences of the shifts occurring today.

But research efforts have long been aimed at keeping up with fluxes in family life. Roughly four decades ago in the United States, for example, states began adopting no-fault divorce laws that made it easier to untie the knot. Though the move was originally criticized as a legislated death knell for marriage, only recently has it become apparent how the no-fault divorce revolution panned out, says economist Douglas Allen of Simon Fraser University in Burnaby, Canada.

Divorce rates indeed rose by as much as 20 percent in the 20 years after no-fault divorce first appeared, Allen says. By the 1980s, half of all first marriages in the United States went kaput. Since then, though, the trend has reversed. Today, roughly one-third of first marriages end in divorce.

Likewise, the effects of today’s declining marriage rates and other changes may play out over many years.

Vow power

For those willing to take the plunge, research has long suggested that marriage is a happiness-making, health-promoting institution, at least on average. New evidence shows that the same may hold for what Ozzie and Harriet would have referred to as “living in sin,” which researchers call cohabiting.

The number of cohabiting hetero-sexual couples in the United States shot up from 500,000 in 1970 to more than 7.5 million in 2010, whereas the total U.S. population grew by about half.

Married and cohabiting folks do comparably well emotionally and physically, say sociologists Kelly Musick of Cornell University and Larry Bumpass of the University of Wisconsin–Madison. The scientists analyzed interviews of more than 2,200 randomly chosen adults who had been contacted from 1987 to 1988 and again from 1992 to 1994, the most recent data available to the team.

Married couples fared slightly better than cohabiting partners in physical health, but cohabiting couples reported a slight edge over marrieds in happiness and self-esteem, Musick and Bumpass reported in the February Journal of Marriage and Family. After getting married or moving in together, both brands of partners cut down on social activities to spend more time with each other. These results held after accounting for cohabiting couples’ inclination to call it quits more often than married partners do.

Be they husband and wife or not, partners who pledge their love in public stay together longer. New work suggests that a commitment to one another in front of family and friends, even when it is not legally recognized, may boost a relationship’s life span.

“Commitment vows are very powerful, even in a cynical era when people aren’t afraid of getting divorced,” says Stanford University sociologist Michael Rosenfeld.

Heterosexual and gay couples who make public vows — either in marriage ceremonies, upon forming legal domestic partnerships or on their own initiative — report low breakup rates that fall to near zero among couples who have lived together for at least 20 years, Rosenfeld finds. Couples that don’t make public commitments to their relationships split at much higher rates.

Rosenfeld’s results come from a representative sample of 3,009 people living in the United States who completed annual Internet surveys from 2009 to 2011.
Breakup rates over the two-year period reached 46 percent for unmarried heterosexual couples who didn’t live together or formalize their relationship, and ascended to 61 percent for their gay counterparts. Even after 40 years together, about 20 percent of same- and opposite-sex partners who skipped the vows went their separate ways, Rosenfeld reported in August in Denver at the annual meeting of the American Sociological Association.

In contrast, just under 3 percent of married, heterosexual couples broke up during the study. Gay men who were married or in domestic partnerships split at about the same 3 percent rate as married heterosexuals. Marriages and domestic partnerships among gay women dissolved at a 9 percent clip. Reasons for more breakups among gay female partners than gay male partners remain unclear. Women tend to have higher standards for what counts as a satisfying relationship than men do, Coontz suggests, perhaps making the female couples a bit less stable.

Opposite-sex domestic partnerships fared slightly worse, with a 16 percent breakup rate. And about one-quarter of opposite-sex cohabiting couples parted ways over the two-year stretch. But that’s still better than those showing no sign of commitment.

Rosenfeld’s study unveils the power of an openly declared commitment, Coontz says. Public ceremonies encourage relatives and close comrades to provide moral and financial support to couples, but that is especially true for those who wed. “Marriage doesn’t create commitment, but it can reinforce commitment,” she says. 

After the altar

Even the most steadfast same-sex relationships ignite controversy when kids enter the picture. About 100,000 gay couples in the United States are raising children amid a fierce national debate about what effects, if any, such family arrangements have on child development.

A 2005 brief issued by the American Psychological Association concluded that children raised by same-sex parents do just as well socially and emotionally as kids with a mom and a dad at home.

But the 59 studies referenced in the brief contain too many flaws to say anything about same-sex parenthood, concluded family studies professor Loren Marks of Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge in the July Social Science Research. Most of the research cited by the APA consisted of small numbers of affluent, self-selected gay parents who weren’t compared with heterosexual parents of similar backgrounds, he says. Among other problems, measures of children’s well-being varied from one study to another and few investigations tracked kids beyond childhood.

A study aimed at providing a clearer look at the adjustment of kids with same-sex parents, appearing in the same issue of Social Science Research, set off its own wave of disputes. Sociologist Mark Regnerus of the University of Texas at Austin analyzed data from a nationally representative sample of nearly 3,000 people, ages 18 to 39, surveyed in 2011 and early 2012.

Regnerus compared 163 individuals who reported that their mothers had a past or current gay partner with 919 participants who grew up with a biological mother and a father. Those from families headed by a gay mother displayed poorer mental and physical health, were more often unemployed and reported more problems in their current romantic relationships. A separate group of 73 participants had gay fathers, but that was too few to make any confident assertions.

Regnerus acknowledges that the results do not show that a gay mother’s sexual orientation or sexual behavior causes emotional and social problems in her children. The findings could reflect the fact that many gay mothers had previously been married to men and gotten divorced, so their children had contended with parental breakups while kids with opposite-sex parents often had divorce-free upbringings.

What’s more, social stigma about gay parenthood might have made the wonder years even tougher for kids with lesbian mothers.

Regnerus’ study swiftly came under attack. A letter published in the November Social Science Research, signed by 200 social scientists and scholars, criticized the work as muddled and misleading. Aside from the apples-and-oranges comparison of people with previously divorced gay parents and offspring of never-divorced heterosexual parents, Regnerus didn’t confirm parents’ sexual orientation, the letter asserts. As a result, it is unknown how many parents in Regnerus’ same- and opposite-sex households were bisexual and whether that has made a difference for the children.

Better investigations are in the works, says Allen, of Simon Fraser. Small numbers of same-sex parents and the many paths that bring children into families with two men or two women as parents present big research challenges. Allen is currently analyzing census data on Canadian families, including about 1,400 with same-sex parents.

“We’ve got a long way to go before we can say whether children are better off, the same or worse off in same-sex families compared to intact biological families,” Allen says.

Bad girls, worse boys

Evidence is much clearer that children generally do better in families with two parents rather than one. An upsurge in single-mother families over the last 20 years helps explain the unsettling growth of behavior problems among young boys and girls, says Jayanti Owens, a sociology graduate student at Princeton University.

Owens consulted data from national samples of children born in the 1980s and the early 2000s who had been tracked by other researchers from birth until at least kindergarten. Unsurprising to Owens, boys from this cross section of U.S. families lost their tempers, got in fights, talked out of turn and otherwise misbehaved more than girls.

After controlling for mothers’ incomes, children’s early scores on mental tests and a variety of other factors, Owens calculated that an expansion of single motherhood substantially contributed to the two-decade rise of kids’ misbehavior. Jumps in childhood physical problems such as low birth weight and asthma also stoked the troubling trend.

In single-mother families, boys are more likely than girls to veer into misconduct, Owens’ analysis suggests. Increasing numbers of girls are behaving badly, but boys’ rates of unruliness have escalated even faster, from a higher level to begin with.

“Girls are now at the level of behavior problems displayed by boys 20 years ago,” Owens says. “It’s an open question whether rates of behavior problems will continue to rise.”

In her national samples, the proportion of 4-year-old boys raised by single mothers in the mid-2000s was around 33 percent and the proportion of 4-year-old girls was 35 percent, both up from the late 1980s.

Family instability may help explain Owens’ finding. Recent work by sociologist Carey Cooper of Arizona State University in Tempe finds that boys whose family arrangements changed more often showed increased conduct problems and language difficulties up to age 5. The steadier the family situation, the more young boys’ misbehavior was held in check.

Unstable families in the study, reported last year in Sociology of Education, included but were not limited to families where a mother started out married, got divorced, lived with another man and then struck out on her own.

Boys’ disruptive lead over girls has long-term consequences. It may, for example, help explain why young women have become more likely than young men to graduate from high school and attend and graduate from college, especially in the middle- and lower-income households where single mothers are most common, Owens said at the sociology meeting.

Family unknowns

Such findings only scratch at the surface of some vital questions about the social effects of modern family life. Owens’ results, for instance, may ultimately speak to what some researchers consider to be an overall cultural decline of males.

Though the idea is debated, there are investigators who argue that, in a knowledge-based economy, girls’ overall advantages over boys in concentration, self-control and goal-setting may translate into greater educational success and better-paying jobs. If current childhood misconduct trends continue, male and female achievement may decline to different extents over the next few generations, Owens says, though she notes that there is no way to know if that scenario will play out.

Other head-scratchers concern whether today’s partner-defined commitments will increasingly skew who decides to get and stay hitched. “We’re seeing a major class divide emerge in who gets married,” Coontz says, with well-off, college-educated couples most apt to walk down the aisle and negotiate successful marriages. It’s hard to predict whether 20 or 50 years from now, marriage will have become an exclusive luxury of the affluent.

Low-income couples who do get married and then split up, unlike affluent couples, increasingly forgo divorce for indefinite separations, Dmitry Tumin, a graduate student in sociology at Ohio State University, reported at the sociology meeting. “Marital separation is becoming an alternative to divorce among the poor,” he said.

Most divorces these days follow separations of a few years. But more than 10 percent of separations now last for at least 10 years, Tumin said. Poor couples, who are least able to pay for a divorce and who may still need one another’s help for child care, frequently opted for extended separations.

Ozzie and Harriet certainly wouldn’t have lived apart for a decade, much less hired a divorce lawyer. If the Nelsons argued, they resolved the tiff in 30 minutes, with time for commercials.

Today’s real-life families are headed in a variety of directions, though, with strengths and weaknesses yet to be determined. Ozzie and Harriet, among the first sitcom couples to share a bed, would be as eager as anyone to see how all the changes shake out.

Matchmaking through time

In the networked world of human evolution, love took a backseat to parental matchmaking.

Arranged unions of men and women have been the norm since humans first left Africa between 60,000 and 70,000 years ago, says anthropologist Robert Walker of the University of Missouri in Columbia. In a 2011 paper, Walker and his colleagues combined mitochondrial DNA patterns and mating practices from a worldwide sample of hunter-gatherer groups to reconstruct likely ways in which eligible guys and gals partnered up in the distant past.

No one can say for sure what social life was like in the Stone Age. But by looking at the mating behavior of modern hunter-gatherers with the most ancient genetic roots, the researchers estimate that Stone Age men and women usually formed monogamous relationships arranged by their parents. Families of marriage partners typically exchanged goods or labor to seal a union, a practice still common today. Courtship might still have characterized a minority of Stone Age groups, as it does a small number of present-day hunter-gatherer societies, Walker says.

His findings are consistent with an idea, developed by anthropologist Bernard Chapais of the University of Montreal, that arranged marriages of men and women from neighboring foraging groups opened the door to complex human societies. Networks of in-laws enabled cultural innovations to spread rapidly and united bands into larger social units (SN: 4/9/11, p. 13).

Ancient civilizations may have carried matchmaking even further. Historical accounts from 16 societies going back more than 4,000 years to ancient Egypt consistently describe marriages controlled by parents, especially fathers, to promote favorable family alliances, evolutionary psychologist Menelaos Apostolou of the University of Nicosia in Cyprus reported this year in Evolutionary Psychology. Sexes were strictly segregated to prevent illicit love affairs.

In Northwest Europe and North America, the Industrial Revolution of the early 1800s allowed young adults for the first time to make a living on their own, outside family farms and parental control, says demographic historian Steven Ruggles of the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis. That shift laid the groundwork for love matches and other family shake-ups, he says.

Bruce Bower has written about the behavioral sciences for Science News since 1984. He writes about psychology, anthropology, archaeology and mental health issues.